The Venus Flytrap: Not Loose

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Could there possibly be anyone who doesn’t have a crush on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? If her progressive worldview and personal journey weren’t impressive enough, the newly-elected American politician won even more hearts after conservatives released an edited video of her from college, happily dancing, intending this to smear her reputation. (She responded with another video of her happily dancing, in her lofty new office). There’ve been similar, malicious smear attempts, like a photo misattributed as a selfie of hers which made the rounds, in which a woman’s feet are seen in a bathtub, with a hand holding a vape pen, and a suggestive reflection in the faucet.

Dancing, relaxing, having fun, being and feeling attractive – all activities deemed inappropriate for a woman because the overall impression is that she is… What exactly? The answer is spelled out many times over in the heterosexual dating app Bumble’s new commercial for the Indian market. Bumble’s premise is to let women decide whether to make contact or not. The ad stars Priyanka Chopra, one of its investors, and shows her in various scenarios being described with a positive adjective, followed by “not loose”. The inference is that loose women use Tinder or other apps, while not-loose women use Bumble. Newsflash: it’s the same dudes on all platforms. And it’s the same pitting-women-against-each-other strategy that’s run the world for millennia.

But why not “loose”? The slut-shaming is shocking, given Bumble’s purportedly woman-friendly ethos. How can a dating app that claims to be based on women’s empowerment denigrate women in this manner? Bumble’s Twitter replies to the surprisingly few people who have protested were patronising, claiming that “loose” is a misogynistic term (it is, which is why Bumble’s use of it is especially misogynistic, positioning women who enjoy their sexuality as less admirable than those who don’t) and making vague statements on “on the ground” work in response to clear objections.

And what on earth is “loose”, anyway? Back in 1994, before we could take for granted sex-positivity (i.e. the acceptance on a socio-political level that sexuality is natural, to be celebrated, and not at odds with the fight for social justice) as a cornerstone of sound feminist principles, the poet Sandra Cisneros released an entire collection called “Loose Woman”. The titular poem unfurls like an anthem. Among its many thrumming lines are these: “I built my little house of ill repute. / Brick by brick. Labored, / loved and masoned it. / I live like so. / Heart as sail, ballast, rudder, bow.”

If that’s what it means to be a loose woman – hardworking, passionate and proud of herself – then who knows why it’s deemed unappealing. And worse, incongruent with being ambitious, curious, busy, free or equal – the ad’s buzzwords.

It’s clear Bumble’s India strategy is just the latest version of that old Ladies’ Night bar tactic. It appears to be for women, but all it offers women is something watered-down, while it’s the men who are the true target market. And when it comes to the political playing field, it pays for anyone who isn’t a man to remember this too. It’s their world. We’ve got to usurp it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 10th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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